CARY, N.C.—After missing the postseason last year for the first time since 2002, Duke's unlikely journey through the NCAA tournament came to an end one win shy of history Sunday.
Penn State midfielder Raquel Rodriguez posted the lone goal at WakeMed Soccer Park, lifting top-seeded Penn State to a 1-0 win against third-seeded Duke in the College Cup final, denying the Blue Devils the program's first national championship and giving the Nittany Lions theirs.
Rodriguez's goal—her sixth of the season—came in the 72nd minute with a sliding finish inside the box through a sea of Duke defenders. Rodriguez’s score earned her offensive Most Outstanding Player honors for the tournament.
“[Rodriguez] has a great feel for the game, you can see that,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said. “I thought she was as effective against us as any of the players we’ve seen."
Scoreless at the end of the first period, Duke (14-6-5) outshot the Nittany Lions 6-4 through the first 45 minutes, though Penn State (22-3-2) placed three on goal. A shot by sophomore Ashton Miller just barely went wide to the left in the seventh minute to get the offense started for the Blue Devils. Fellow sophomore Imani Dorsey—who exited Friday’s match against Florida State with a shoulder injury—was a spark off the bench, pacing Duke with three shots in the first period. The forward gave the Blue Devils their best look of the first half—a shot in the 30th minute that bounced harmlessly off the crossbar.
“I think when I got on the field, my first instinct was to go at the outside back to try to spark something on our offense,” Dorsey said. “I looked to shoot it because I’ve taken a couple chances [like that] earlier this season and have gotten some good goals off [them], and just to keep the goalie on their toes—that’s a tough shot to stop.”
The Duke defense—led by goalkeeper E.J. Proctor—held Penn State without a first-period score for the first time in the tournament. The Wilson, N.C., native made four saves Sunday and garnered Most Outstanding Player on Defense honors and a spot on the All-Tournament team, joining forwards Toni Payne and Kayla McCoy and versatile captain Christina Gibbons.
“I think it’s nice for someone on our defense to get that recognition because it is due to the backs why we did so well this season,” Proctor said. “That was our focus all year, so it’s nice to see that pay off and make a run in the tournament.”
Gibbons bolstered the back line and helped Duke hold the Nittany Lions’ leading scorer, Megan Schafer, without a shot in the game. Frannie Crouse—another lethal offensive threat in Penn State’s arsenal—posted only one.
The teams traded shots for much of the second period and each attempted 11 for the afternoon. The Blue Devils missed a crucial opportunity to take the lead in the 62nd minute on an aggressive drive down the field by Payne. A pass from the junior intended for Dorsey instead went between the sophomore's legs—into the possession of Penn State—and Duke failed to capitalize on a clean look at the goal. Rodriguez broke through 10 minutes later to give the Nittany Lions the lead, and Penn State thwarted Duke's comeback attempts to secure the victory. The Blue Devils earned a corner kick with less than 10 seconds to play but could not set up the game-tying cross before time ran out.
Goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom solidified the Nittany Lions’ back line and finished the season without allowing a score after Nov. 1.
For much of the game, it seemed the squads were destined for 90 scoreless minutes just like their last outing, which ended in a 0-0 draw Aug. 28. But Rodriguez's finish inside the box in heavy traffic beat a diving Proctor—sending the Nittany Lions to the podium to hoist the trophy and the Blue Devils home just one win short.
Duke will lose only one starter—midfielder Kara Wilson—to graduation, meaning this year's young group of Blue Devils will be brimming with big-game experience heading into next season.
“Looking at the stats and seeing how even the game was, we’re right there," Church said. "We lose one senior that started for us and a lot of really good seniors that did a great job in leadership. But the groundwork is there for us to make a return.”
Duke's strenuous journey to the title game included five straight wins against conference champions, three consecutive matches against No. 1 seeds and a pair of road games, including a cross-country trek to beat No. 1 Stanford. After an 0-2-2 start in the ACC, the Blue Devils turned around their season and nearly pulled off a grueling stretch that Church said showed the heart that has defined his team all year.
“What an unbelievable run we’ve been on the last 10 games. We played as hard as we could,” Church said. “The team has been hungry to be great all year and they are—they are great.”
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